Activists Suffer Fallout from Chen’s Escape

While Chen Guangcheng is safe in New York, and the local government’s former grip on his home village has, for now, relaxed, the consequences of his escape continue to be felt far beyond Dongshigu. In Beijing, activist Hu Jia was held overnight on Tuesday in order, he suspects, to prevent him from visiting Chen’s relatives in Shandong [zh].

Feng Zhenghu may be best known for his three-month stay in Tokyo’s Narita Airport after Chinese officials refused to allow him to re-enter the country. His eventual return in February 2010 did not mark the end of his problems, however. His persistent work to help petitioners hold the authorities to their own laws has led to an extra-legal house arrest similar to Chen’s. From Tania Branigan at The Guardian:

Since February the 57-year-old scholar has been barred from leaving his home, except when escorted to the police station for 10 hour sessions – as he was on Saturday. At one stage, unable even to shop for food, he resorted to lowering a basket from his window for well-wishers to fill with groceries every few days [see video of this process at Shanghaiist].

“What they have done to me is a breach of the law. It has no legal basis. I am very angry,” said Feng, speaking to the Guardian by telephone.

[…] Police have never formally notified Feng that he is under house arrest. An officer at the local station referred queries to the Shanghai police media department, where calls rang unanswered.

“Maybe people think Chen Guangcheng’s case was unique and that this has been won. Feng Zhenghu and Chen’s cases are both extreme, but they are on a continuum of illegal punishment and detentions for activists that is very, very common in China,” said Wang Songlian of Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

In spite of his anger, Feng, like Pu Zhiqiang and Ai Weiwei, shows a remarkable lack of bitterness towards his guards. Feng’s neighbours include American journalist Lara Farrar, who describes his attitude at The Huffington Post, and explains how Chen’s escape increased the harshness of Feng’s own situation:

“If I escape, those guards, the local public security bureau chief, the district governor, all of them will lose their jobs,” he said. “I have been with them for two years, and I understand them. It is also hard for them, so I don’t want to try to run away. Summer is coming, and I worry for them. The sun and mosquitoes are coming, and they have to stay outside. It is a pretty hard life for them as it is for me.”

Since the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng dramatically escaped from house arrest in a rural village in northern Shandong Province at the end of April, the layers of security surrounding my apartment complex have multiplied. The guards are still at the gate. But now there are more who hang around all day near the entryway to Feng’s building. There are new security cameras by the entrance. This week, new ultra bright lights were installed on the grounds.

[…] “They are very worried right now that in Shandong a blind person could escape such heavy security,” Feng said. “They afraid that I might run away too, and then they will lose their jobs. So their days are not easy right now.”

Meanwhile, journalists have taken advantage of their new freedom to visit Dongshigu. Speculating on the sudden disappearance of the village guards, Chen’s older brother Chen Guangfu told Reuters’ Sui-Lee Wee that “perhaps the ‘nation’ of Dongshigu has surrendered to Beijing or Beijing won the war against Dongshigu. The policies of the central government can finally be carried out here. In the past it was like ‘the mountains were high and the emperor is far away’, this was a place where the law could not reach.”

Nevertheless, the shadow over Dongshigu has not entirely lifted, as McClatchy’s Tom Lasseter found:

“Chen Guangcheng is a good man,” said the farmer, wearing navy cotton pants and a green camouflage shirt. Before he could get another word out, however, a man identified by locals as a village official rode by on a scooter, honked his horn and said, “Don’t talk.” Moments later, the official circled back and bellowed, “Bu zhidao! Bu zhidao!” – Chinese for “don’t know” – apparently the only response the farmer was supposed to give.

A second farmer had explained earlier that, “Chen Guangcheng had a very good reputation, the common people sympathized with him,” when the same official, in a grey-striped polo shirt, rushed over to command, “Go! Go!”

It was a far cry from the previous year and a half, when dozens of men enforced a brutish cordon around this village of less than 500 people in eastern China’s Shandong Province. But the scene of petty bureaucrats – the village representative was joined by others from county offices — harassing anyone who wanted to publicly discuss Chen seemed a fitting coda as his story fades from the headlines. It has been a remarkable example of how dissent is silenced in China.

The fragments of praise Lasseter was able to gather contrast with blogger Sima Pingbang’s account, published in the Global Times in May. The “grass-roots intellectual” accused Chen of wielding tyrannical control over the local water supply based, apparently quite loosely, on a case described in Lijia Zhang’s recent portrait of the activist at The Diplomat.

Others visiting the village had experiences similar to Lasseter’s, as photographer David Gray recounted in a photoessay at Reuters:

[…] [Guangfu] arrived on a bike, smiling and very happy to see us. We walked with him to the family home, just five minutes away, and discovered of course that it was at the exact spot where we had first asked someone after entering the village. [Guangfu] said he was certain that all the villagers had been told not to talk to any foreigners, because normally they would all be out of their homes watching them.

We entered the gate to the Chen family home and met Wang Jinxiang, the mother of [Guangfu] and Guangcheng. This sweet lady greeted us with open arms and we quickly started the interview. It didn’t take long for her to begin crying as she recounted the many sleepless nights over the past years.

[…] Finally, a goofy-looking man dressed exactly like an official would be (with long dress pants and a collared shirt, in the middle of a farming village) approached us and asked where we were from. We told him we were from Beijing and we were doing interviews – would he care to comment? There was “No need” he replied, “As you can see, all is fine here.”

See also Charles Custer’s reflections on Chen’s escape and the ensuing diplomatic standoff at ChinaGeeks.